The Los Angeles Rams and New England Patriots clashed in Super Bowl LIII last Sunday night. Predicted to be a shootout, the game was heralded as the result of a season marked by increased offensive play and staggering point totals. However, with a final score of 13-3, the game was the lowest scoring Super Bowl in N.F.L. history. How did this happen? The game ultimately came down to defensive schemes and the ability to adapt and adjust. With skilled coaches for both teams in every phase of the game, the matchup was set to be an exercise in intellect and football acumen.
Earlier this season, the Rams defeated the Kansas City Chiefs 54-51 in a Monday Night Football game that totaled 105 points. Punts were rare, and the Rams scored double-digit points every quarter. What made Super Bowl LIII starkly different were the defensive coaches on both teams — Defensive Coordinator Wade Phillips for the Rams, and Head Coach Bill Belichick PG’71 and Defensive Play-Caller Brian Flores for the Patriots– who enacted perfect schemes to counter the other’s elite offense.
The Rams managed to exert substantial pressure on Brady with star Defensive Tackles Aaron Donald, two-time reigning Defensive Player of the Year, and Ndamukong Suh, former All-Pro, eventually getting one sack, forcing a rare Brady fumble, which was recovered by Patriots. Due to this constant pressure, Brady was rattled for the majority of the game, and it showed. He threw an interception on his first pass attempt of the game, and had numerous errant throws. To make matters worse, the Rams defensive front stymied the Patriots rushing attack and screen game, forcing Brady to drop back and attempt even more difficult throws. Despite this initial offensive trouble, it was Brady, having unlocked the key to the Rams defense, who put together the game’s only touchdown drive. Brady did so by making beautiful throws to tight end Rob Gronkowski and Super Bowl M.V.P. Julian Edelman. After a 29-yard Gronkowski diving catch, running back Sony Michel capped off the drive on a 2-yard touchdown with seven minutes remaining on the clock.
The Patriots’ defensive strategy, on the other hand, aimed to rattle young quarterback Jared Goff with disguised coverages, and increased zone looks (40% of their defensive snaps on pass plays were in zone, much more than the predominantly man-coverage oriented Patriots in the regular season), as well as heavy blitzes and heightened pressure. The team ultimately succeeded, sacking Goff four times and constantly flushing him out of the pocket, forcing him to attempt difficult throws.
The dominance of the Patriots defensive line also stifled the vaunted Rams rushing game, with M.V.P.-caliber running back Todd Gurley rushing for only 3.5 yards per carry and 35 yards total, and auxiliary back C.J. Anderson chipping in only 22 yards at 3.1 YPC. In terms of pass defense, Belichick and Flores executed their plan to put Stephon Gilmore on No. 1 wideout and speedster Brandin Cooks, and double-team formidable receiver Robert Woods, as to force Goff to throw to his tertiary targets. Outside of Cooks and Woods, the Rams pass-catchers totaled a mere 39 receiving yards. Even when defensive coverage was blown, great hustle from Patriots CB Jason McCourty prevented a wide-open Brandin Cooks touchdown. The constant pressure and great coverage eventually forced Goff into an inadvisable throw, a go route to Brandin Cooks, which was intercepted by corner Stephon Gilmore, effectively ending the game after the offense capitalized on the turnover and scored a game-sealing field goal.
Ultimately, the game was a chess match; a duel of wits pitting Coach Sean McVay and Defensive Coordinator Wade Phillips against Coach Bill Belichick and Defensive Signal-Caller Brian Flores. The Patriots, in the end, were the ones to call checkmate, as the defensive scheme was too much for inexperienced QB Jared Goff and the Ram’s offense to handle. With an added spurt of clutch offensive play from future Hall of Famer Tom Brady, the Patriots comfortably secured the win and their 6th title in 18 years. This game was about intellect and versatility, and the ability to adjust and adapt, qualities that the Rams failed to exhibit and the once-again Super Bowl Champion Patriots did.